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Steelers face critical draft in quest for another Lombardi Trophy

| Saturday, April 20, 2013, 11:27 p.m.
Chaz Palla
Steelers first-round draft pick David DeCastro is helped up after being injured during a preseason game Thursday, Aug. 25, 2012, at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo. DeCastro tore his right medial collateral ligament, dislocated his kneecap and damaged his patellar tendon. He had surgery four days later and is working to return to the active roster later this season.

Nobody drafts better than the Steelers.

Almost nobody.

Since the NFL went to a seven-round draft in 1994, the Packers and Steelers rank 1-2 in draft efficiency — and few teams are even relatively close, according to a Pro Football Reference analysis.

The Packers earn a 45.7 value ranking, the Steelers a 45.3. The No. 3 team, the Colts, are at 42.2. The bottom three? Not surprisingly, they're the Browns, Lions and Raiders.

In what for the Steelers is the Year of the Need, they badly need to hit a seven-round draft home run this week to avoid taking what could be a major step backward from the past five seasons, when they averaged 10-plus wins.

“Huge draft,” NFL Network analyst Jamie Dukes said. “They're recalibrating. ... It's a retooling.”

Or maybe some outright renovating, though general manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin wouldn't dare use such a drastic term.

Not long ago, the Steelers went into the draft looking for complementary players and future starters. Now they require front-line players nearly across the board. On the mythical urgency meter, their needs at outside linebacker, running back and wide receiver are glaring; those at safety, inside linebacker, cornerback and defensive line are only slightly less so.

That's seven positions, and they have only eight picks. They've never had a draft class in which every player contributed right away.

“They have needs,” Dukes said.

Former Redskins and Texans general manager Charley Casserly thinks the Steelers will follow their long-held course of taking the best player available, regardless of position, especially with so many holes to fill.

“They are picking a little higher (No. 17) this year, but they still have to follow their philosophy of best available (player) over need,” said Casserly, an NFL Network analyst. “They probably should be able to fill one of those needs — and certainly they can trade back and fill them as well.”

One reason this is a critical draft is that the finely tuned Colbert Drafting Machine inexplicably broke down in 2008, months before they won the Super Bowl.

Not one member of that seven-man class remains — Rashard Mendenhall (Cardinals) and Ryan Mundy (Giants) recently signed elsewhere — and it included busts in Limas Sweed, Bruce Davis and Tony Hills from the second to fourth rounds.

That kind of draft can derail a franchise for years, and it is threatening to do that to these Steelers based on last season's 8-8 record.

It hasn't helped that recent first-round defensive linemen Ziggy Hood (2009) and Cam Heyward (2011) still haven't established themselves, even with Hood entering the last year of his contract. Of the Steelers' past five first-rounders, only David DeCastro (2012) and Maurkice Pouncey (2010) project to be impact players this season.

In only two-plus years, 10 starters — half the lineup — are gone from the team that lost to the Green Bay Packers, 31-25, in the Super Bowl in February 2011.

One of those key departures, James Harrison, is a primary reason the Steelers rank No. 1 in the NFL with 416 sacks — four more than any other team — over the past 10 seasons.

But with Harrison gone after being unable to work out a contract renegotiation, the Steelers are down to four experienced outside linebackers, and Adrian Robinson and Chris Carter barely played. LaMarr Woodley and Jason Worilds are the only two outside linebackers with a sack.

The situation at running back is no less dire.

“There is one guy I go off the board to get if I'm the Steelers,” Dukes said. “(Running back) Eddie Lacy of Alabama. If I have to move up a slot or two because he's within my reach, I'm going to get him. All he's got to do is run the way he did at Alabama. That's what the Steelers need.”

NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock disagrees, pointing to the aging defense.

“I think (Texas safety) Kenny Vaccaro makes a ton of sense there,” Mayock said. “Their starting safeties are both in their 30s; they both have had some injuries. As much as I love Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark, they've got to have an infusion of youth.”

Or maybe an infusion on offense?

Mike Wallace is taking the NFL's best downfield speed with him to South Beach, and there's no deep threat remaining. Emmanuel Sanders could leave as a free agent after next season, just as Wallace did. Think Ben Roethlisberger won't be lobbying for an early-round receiver?

Still, ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. thinks the Steelers should jump on tight end Tyler Eifert of Notre Dame, calling him the perfect fit for their offense, rather than a wideout like Cordarrelle Patterson of Tennessee.

“Offense is still a question with them: wide receiver, tight end, running back,” Casserly said. “Those to me are the three main areas for them.”

What's differs about this Steelers draft from almost every preceding one in the Colbert era is that nearly every area is one of need. Arguably never during that time have the Steelers needed a better draft.

It all starts around 10 p.m. Thursday night, when the Steelers should go on a clock that already is ticking ominously.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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